Scottish Symphony

Felix Mendelssohn

Scottish Symphony in A minor

Op. 56 • “Symphony No.3”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, is the last symphony the composer completed. Mendelssohn's letters show that his first inspiration for the symphony came in 1829, during his first visit to England. After some sketching, Mendelssohn set aside the piece until 1841, when disappointments in his life placed him in a mood similar to that he experienced in England 12 years earlier. The early conception and sketching may account for the squarness of some of the themes. The piece was completed on January 20, 1842; it was first performed on March 3, same year, in Leipzig, and was published in 1843. After a successful performance of the symphony in England in 1842, Mendelssohn received permission to dedicate it to Queen Victoria.

Each movement is to move immediately to the next without pause, setting it apart from Mendelssohn's other symphonies. To the tempo markings of each movement Mendelssohn adds directions reflecting the character of the music, which conveys Mendelssohn's impressions of the Scottish landscape.

Opening with a restrained, Haydn-esque slow introduction, the first movement moves suddenly to an Allegro un poco agitato tempo with a main theme that is treated with variation technique. The orchestration is among Mendelssohn's most dense; curious and exhilarating modulations open both the development section and coda. The development section is concise and effective. When the main theme returns in the recapitulation and the introduction returns in the coda, the themes are underpinned with a counter-theme in the cellos. The coda also contains the famous chromatic "wave," played by the strings.

The cheerful Scherzo, marked Vivace non troppo, is derived from Scottish folk music, which is a surprise, since in 1829 Mendelssohn complained that such sounds gave him "a toothache." It stands in stark contrast to the thick first movement and is in sonata form. The movement fades and dissolves to prepare for the ensuing Adagio.

Resignation reigns in the third movement, an Adagio cantabile in A major. A clear reference to Beethoven appears in the low strings, which play a motive resembling the theme of the Allegretto of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Reminiscences of Beethoven's Op. 74 String Quartet also appear. Beautifully orchestrated, the movement is in two major sections separated by returning material.

Folk melodies appear again in the Finale, an unusually powerful and militant movement for Mendelssohn. A leaping, aggressive theme in the violins begins the movement, appropriate for Mendelssohn's direction, Allegro guerriero (Fast and warlike). Fragmentation technique propels the development section as themes are layered and treated contrapuntally. After the recapitulation we do not hear a coda with thematic references to the exposition. Instead, Mendelssohn shifts to a Maestoso coda, in which we hear new material and the theme from the introduction, which is again taken through variations and now conveys an air of triumph after the "battle." The symphony closes in A major.